Restaurant environments have a lot on their plate—pun intended. Keeping up with the day-to-day operations, staffing challenges, and customer experience can keep you busy round-the-clock.

A food safety incident can bring all this screeching to a halt.

Food safety worries these days go far beyond ensuring the chicken is cooked thoroughly enough to avoid Salmonella. One look at recent headlines shows the sheer breadth of what food safety encompasses for today’s restaurants:

  • County investigating case of hepatitis A in food prep worker
  • Norovirus outbreak closes two oyster farms
  • The reality of intentional food contamination threats

For restaurants, food safety also includes ensuring staff knows when they shouldn’t work, how to clean up biohazard incidents, proper food storage, when equipment is to be cleaned, managing suppliers and verifying their food safety, and much more.

A culture of food safety is an environment where food safety is a valued, integral, and indivisible part of an organization, allowing the organization to achieve and sustain reduction in risks. For chains, this approach creates uniformity across locations. For all restaurants, it reduces the likelihood of foodborne illness incidents, negative publicity, and ultimately, brand damage.

Food safety audit programs are one element of a culture of food safety. But all food safety programs are not built equally. The most effective programs will have the following components:


Food safety must begin at the top. That means that senior level officials must believe that food safety is a priority, and it must be modeled throughout leadership levels.

Most importantly, a food safety audit program must be communicated to the entire organization as a mission, goal, or core objective. Expectations of the program should be clearly outlined and locations receiving the audit must understand why the auditing company is there – otherwise, locations end up either not participating at all or participating under the wrong assumptions. This can lead to the feeling that “Big Brother” is watching, and the results of the program won’t be true to what’s really happening in your locations.


Many food safety programs include a checklist-style audit that simply “ticks the boxes” to ensure the state of a restaurant’s efforts at a specific moment in time – no feedback is given to employees on the why and how behind the reason they haven’t scored well on a particular item, so there’s no resulting behavior change.  

Even worse, they leave your employees feeling “policed,” which leads to an antagonistic relationship between auditors and your locations. No good can come out of a negative relationship. In fact, it often leads to operators finding ways to “game the system,” rather than making real changes.

Select an audit partner that offers a fair and objective audit, but also provides your location-level staff members with information to help them improve. Offering this information in a positive manner can help defeat the perception that audits are a way to police the individual locations.


Another downside to checklist-style audits: the checklists tend to stay the same over the course of years, despite new products, equipment, restaurant design, etc. They evaluate things that don’t really matter, don’t truly keep food safe, and don’t help you improve guest satisfaction.

Your audit partner should make recommendations on critical food safety items to evaluate during audits, as well as food safety concerns specific to your operations. Thorough audit companies will also be looking at voice of customer data for both your brand and your industry and map what is being measured during the audit to what your customers say matters to them.


Frequency of audits can also impact the rate of food safety behavior adoption.

Annual audits are too infrequent; staff turns over, operations change, and there’s no impetus to change.

At the opposite end, monthly assessments don’t allow operations the time needed to make change and may create audit fatigue.

The “sweet spot” is auditing three or four times a year. At this frequency, Steritech has noticed the highest percentage of positive behavior change and audit score improvement.


Audits can produce a stunning amount of data, which can be leveraged to help you take action. This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road.

With today’s software systems, data can be delivered in formats that can be manipulated to look at a wide variety of key points. You can trend results across regions or the country. Or, you can pinpoint problems in individual locations. Data may reveal things such as process or procedure needs, supplier issues, equipment concerns, or training gaps. Data may even help you realize fiscal savings.

However, to get the most out of your food safety program, you need to use the data to achieve results. Your audit partner should be able to make recommendations for evolving your audit based on the data, as well, so that you continue to realize improvements in areas that move the needle in food safety, quality, speed of service, and guest experience.


If locations do not act to change their behaviors, your brand ultimately remains at risk. Hold your locations accountable for making change. Use closed-loop systems to alert locations of corrective actions that are needed in their individual locations and track and verify that action has been taken.

Leverage your audit partner for additional training where required. Focused supplemental training or coaching, especially for struggling locations, has been shown to be effective in standards adoption and score improvement. These types of trainings, when delivered with a positive and constructive approach, truly help foster a culture of food safety.


Help your locations keep food safety at the forefront by providing them with tools to conduct regular self-assessments. A thorough self-assessment can be conducted by a location manager or senior location staffer and will look at critical items from your regular provider-conducted assessments. This allows locations to make adjustments to address developing issues between official assessments and ensure that previous corrective actions are being effectively implemented or practiced by employees.

Consumer preferences are shifting more rapidly than ever before. From quick service restaurants, they want faster service, delivery, loyalty programs, digital kiosks, healthier foods, vegetarian options, crispier fries…the list goes on and on. To serve these needs, operations are continually shifting. They have new processes, new equipment, new suppliers, and new employees, limited time offerings, and new products. Those unwilling to change don’t survive in today’s competitive environment.

Organizations should look at food safety audit programs with this same theory in mind. A robust and effective food safety audit program is a living, breathing entity that is continually evolving to meet the needs of a changing operation. If your food safety audit program stagnates, a food safety culture will wither and eventually die.

With a little due diligence on the front end, a food safety audit program can be an extremely powerful tool in your quest to build a culture of food safety that empowers every individual employee to take action to ensure food safety is practiced at all times. Ultimately, the work will help keep your customers and your brand safe from foodborne illness.

Doug Sutton is the president of Steritech, leader in food safety and service excellence assessments for a range of industries, including hospitality, restaurants, grocery and convenience stores. Through benchmarking a client’s performance against its peers, correlating assessment scores to voice-of-customer feedback and same store sales, and by providing insights that help clients focus on what matters most to their customers, well-designed assessment programs can help clients mitigate risk and drive consistent, safe operations.
Food Safety, Outside Insights, Story